“Look at this son-of-a-bitch,” I said to my reflection, gargled through a foaming glob of toothpaste just a weekend prior to writing these commencing words.
Later that day, I would interview Will Hansen, known in Milwaukee-music circles by his stage name, Old Pup, and I was preparing for the worst.
Hansen, after all, was anticipating the release of his new album, Incognito Lounge, which, according to his own words, was inspired by the works of Denis Johnson (in particular, a poem titled “The Incognito Lounge” ).
“Jesus Christ,” I said to myself, looking out the window at a bitter and disgusting “spring” day in this fucking state. I read a line from Johnson’s poem and sank into an intangible cleft of despair.
“Last night, some kind of alarm went off up the street that nobody responded to. Small darling, it rang for you. Everything suffers invisibly, nothing is possible…” -Denis Johnson, “The Incognito Lounge”
“Shit,” I said to my dog, who (not “which”) had ceremoniously tucked himself into the sheets of my bed – equally stunned by the ghastliness of this year’s Easter weekend.
I had finished only one Johnson novel in my life – Angels (1983) – and I did not so much as read it as I did spiral out of control while ripping the pages – one-by-one – from the paperback’s toxic adhesive, as the protagonists (if you want to call them that) in this love story (if you want to call it that) stumble every which direction through a cold, graying America filled with faceless, disturbing asshats, criminals and psychopaths (the “protagonists” among the folks deserving of those descriptors).
Though, despite the horrifying perspectives and actions of the characters (both main and ancillary) in Angels, it was, still, a beautifully written piece of fiction.
“It was all right to be who he was, but others would probably think it was terrible. A couple of times in the past he’d reached this absolute zero of the truth, and without fear or bitterness he realized now that somewhere inside there was a move he could make to change his life, to become another person, but he’d never be able to guess what it was.” -Denis Johnson, from “Angels”
This painfully honest passage is a microcosm of Johnson’s gift: He could write about the darkest aspects of his characters with rawness and terror, while always leaving a sliver of light for redemption. Johnson, who died in 2017, was a writer’s writer and, cripes, if you want to see for yourself, look up a picture of the dude – a handsome, but mildly overweight white man, often wearing denim shirts tucked into his slacks underneath a suit or trench coat.
If it was his intent not to summon the bravado and machismo of Hemingway, well, he failed miserably.
I got in my car, off to meet Hansen – anticipating a depressing slog of a conversation about the heinousness of humanity – and practiced gargling up an authentic brand of my own cynicism to impress my subject.
Then, I put on the record.
“Listen to this son-of-a-bitch,” I said to myself, turning up the opening track (“Screen Crawlers”).
The jangly tune inspired comparisons to early Tom Rush and other champions of the 1960s folk/blues revival, but what stood out (influenced by my preconceived notions of what a Denis Johnson-loving psyche-folkie might sound like) was how infectious, comfortable and approachable Hansen’s songwriting is.
“I ain’t… gonna let ya down… easy… this time,” sings Hansen on “Screen Crawlers” with a smoky, older-than-his-looks voice that could (but maybe shouldn’t) be compared to a Dylan, a Prine or a Todd Snider. The song, really, is just a Cowboy Western, but Hansen’s stylized vocals and surreal imagery provide a modern dose of authenticity; an archaic (but admired) sound emanating from a young man’s body.
I tell Hansen I had prepared for a much darker afternoon.
“You were probably like: ‘Fuck, now I gotta talk to this weirdo for an hour,’” he said with a laugh, disarming me of any notion that this conversation would be emotionally draining.
In a way, this runs parallel to the music. Twisted characters do twisted things (much like a Johnson story), and the narrator is as unreliable as he claims to be, but at no point is the listener uncomfortable with where they/she/he ends up. While Hansen’s lyrics examine, sometimes, the darkness and banality of, well, everything, the man himself seemed largely hopeful, motivated and immensely likeable.
He’s a North Shore native, a former high school tennis player, a one-time resident of Madison and his physical appearance is no more and no less spectacular than that of his peers and contemporaries (both in industry and age).
“I got in here and realized I had no idea what you look like,” he said to me, as I repeated something similar. We joke that technology has made humans’ facial recognition irrelevant; now, there is an app for that.
We sit and chug coffee.
Early on, Hansen cited Elliott Smith as a big inspiration; someone whose delicate tenor-whisper and finger-style guitar-picking often served as juxtaposition to his poetry about self-loathing, addiction and loneliness.
“He would have like this really upbeat chord progression and then you’d listen to the lyrics, and you’d be like: Oh my god, this is dark,” said Hansen of Smith. “I can’t always listen to [Smith]; I’m very spongy – but on [Incognito Lounge], I definitely do that, where the lyrics are kind of coated in this more pleasant arrangement, but when you listen a bit deeper you realize it’s quite ominous.”
In a sense, Old Pup serves as a modern, younger version of Johnson’s perspective. A not-yet-ruined man still blessed with feelings of love and desire, but, seemingly, very few productive outlets or supports upon which to rely; the raconteur seems to love, but not the right people, and he seems to have lovers, but he does not love them back.
Unrequited love (sometimes for one’s own self) was a theme in Johnson’s works, too.
“He was one of my favorite authors,” said Hansen, who said it was never his intention to provide a synthesis for Johnson’s catalogue through his music, but instead, Johnson’s prose helped serve as a springboard for Hansen’s examination of his own consciousness and sub-consciousness (as well as society’s collective consciousness), which helped create the characters and narratives for the album.
Hansen provides an example of the types of life moments that inspire him and, often, it seems there is a level of mystery, irony or inexplicability that drives his fancy.
“I was staying at this Econo-Lodge in Nashville on a tour once, and I saw a Porsche pull up… and that’s the kind of person that might be in a [Denis Johnson] story. Like, what is going on here? It’s about the outskirts or fringes of society, I think,” recalled Hansen.
Tonally, Old Pup, despite being rooted in authentic American music, finds ways to update the pedagogy and adds notes of psychedelia via lush and trippy blues guitar to, otherwise, traditional arrangements.
On the second track, “Glimpse”, the ghosts of Glen Campbell and Waylon Jennings can be heard in the song’s steel guitar riff that meanders throughout the tune, driving its ephemeral (the song is less than three minutes) and authentic charm.
Among the rich acoustic guitars and the hollow pops of drums, Hansen adds lap and pedal steel (both of which he plays) as a consistent bridge to the album’s overall sound. On some tunes, the ethereal sound is just an encouraging drone, allowing Hansen’s lyrics, additional instrumentation and story to reveal the purpose. On his more sonically open tracks, Hansen lets the steel-sound lead the charge, almost dictating the next measure to his band mates as the song progresses.
The album’s title track, for instance, utilizes a blues riff with a rolling snare, but it’s the lap steel, hardly in the “background,” that seems to navigate the space between verse and chorus, practically setting the melody.
The prose in that song is directly inspired by one of Johnson’s more despondently gorgeous efforts.
“I’ve read [“The Incognito Lounge” by Denis Johnson] dozens of times, and I couldn’t really even begin to explain it,” said Hansen, who marveled over Johnson’s aesthetic and perspective. “Every time I read it something grabs me. If something changes in my life, it’s like: Now this poem is different.”
“It’s a really dynamic, moldable poem, wherever you are at,” he concluded.
That description might work for Old Pup’s album, as well, as those listening closely might feel the fear and despondency of the narrator, while others might just be along for the ride on Hansen’s swirling instrumentations grounded in conventional Country & Western.
The effort closes in eight tracks (at less than 30 minutes total; although, it feels – in a palatable way – much longer than that) with “Beware O Wanderer”, a waltz-style country jaunt that seems to revel in its final Johnson-esque disposition before closing the door on the experiment.
“Well, honey, I ain’t lying when I tell you: ‘You’re already gone,’” sings Hansen with a self-satisfied drawl and the sound of a smile on his lips. The song swells into the sound of an epiphany – strings and lap steel aplenty – before the album drifts off and closes with all instruments inimitably finding a sweet, final note together.
Ultimately, Old Pup’s effort pays homage to Johnson, it is not meant to be analogous to his writing, and that is what makes Incognito Lounge a record to cherish this year and into the hollow future. Like all the greats before him, Hansen has successfully found a way to discuss life’s banality, humans’ cruelness and each day’s futility, but he does so while sounding like a handsome Tennessee archangel just kicked out of heaven and looking to crash in a tent in your backyard.
I think most of us would benefit from such a depressingly benevolent character around the fire pit; exemplified toward the end of our discussion, when Hansen makes clear the distinction between himself, Johnson and Old Pup.
“Denis’ whole thing was just to shine a light. It was a very human perspective. He’s trying to bring people together and to show that everyone wants redemption,” he posited. “It’s more serendipitous than anything. I really just thought it would be cool to do one for Denis.”
Son-of-a-bitch nailed it.
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